Athletes are workers. Whether the commodification of play as sport is inherently and simply a socializing function of capitalism is neither here nor there: the fact remains that playing football — either as professionals in the NFL or the semi-professionals of the NCAA — is fundamentally an act of labor. Ostensibly the NCAA exists to protect and advocate for student-athletes; in reality, however, it only serves to insulate and isolate the unpaid labor-force of an industry that generates an estimated $6 billion in revenue annually.
The only recourse these athletes have is to strike — which is exactly what the football players of Grambling State, a historically black university in Louisiana, have done. This, even in the face of potentially having their scholarships revoked.
Last Tuesday, according to the Shreveport Times, the team walked out of a meeting with university president Frank Pogue, athletic director Aaron James, interim coach George Ragsdale — who started the season as running back coach — and student government president Jordan Harvey.
On Wednesday, a player critical of the previous day’s meeting was kicked out of morning weight-training. His teammates walked out in solidarity; they subsequently refused to attend the afternoon’s practice. Players boycotted practice the next day as well, while Ragsdale was replaced as interim coach by defensive coordinator Dennis “Dirt” Winston.
Pogue said Friday morning the game would go on, but the players made a liar of him when they refused to board the buses waiting to take them up to Jackson State to get beat up on. (Jackson State is 6-2 on the season and 6-0 in the SWAC; Grambling is 0-7 and 0-4 in the SWAC.)
The team lists their grievances in a letter. Their concerns are varied: the floor in the weight-room is “coming apart,” causing players to trip and fall while they are working out; uniforms are not properly cleaned, spreading staph infections; athletes have had to pay for their own Muscle Milk and Gatorade, and drink water from a hose underneath the bleachers; they had to travel by bus to play games in Kansas City, Miss. (14 hours), and Indianapolis, Ind. (17 hours).
Many of these conditions have been brought about by budget constraints. School spokesman Will Sutton has referenced a cumulative 57 percent budget reduction, cumulative over the past several years. The athletics department was spared until this year when it was forced to cut $335,000 from its overall budget of $6.8 million; football was cut by $75,000 to about $2 million.
Family, friends, and alumni who wish to help out via donation, however, are rejected, because they “want to put their money toward a specific cause, not the university or athletics as a whole.” Moreover — according to the letter — both the president and athletic director traveled to Kansas City and Indianapolis by plane.
Still, there is a sense that this is bigger than football. Describing what the team is concerned with, Ant McGhee tweeted, “its DEEPER than football wins or losses even facilities that’s a SMALLER scale of things!” Meanwhile, referencing criticisms from an alumnus that the team was acting soft, that back in his day they played every game going uphill in the snow, linebacker Steve Orisakwe tweeted, “Dude is talking about the 99 team and he’s saying they had the same stuff as us! That’s not a problem?!!?”
These athletes are competitors: not only do they want to play, they want to win. And yet when they advocate for themselves in an attempt to be given the chance to do so, they are punished. (It is unclear what the state of the players’ scholarships is.) It seems ludicrous — but then again, is it so strange that workers would be denied the resources necessary to execute their labor in the most efficient, fulfilling way possible? One does not have to look too far to find yet another iteration of the great absurdity of capitalism: that the myopic focus on revenue streams and profit undermines itself, alienating workers who want to succeed and to flourish in their work. “Let ’em play, ref,” indeed.
The Shreveport Times reports that the team will start practicing again today, encouraged by former coach Doug Williams. The promise of “updated facilities” isn’t much of a concession, but the strike could have wider ramifications for an NCAA goliath built on unpaid labor.